by Kat Ngoi
M O M O F U K U – David Chang & Peter Meehan
Once you can get past the profanity, Momofuku the cookbook tells a remarkable story behind an underdog chef and his accidental culinary kingdom that makes even Disney’s Cinderella pale in comparison as a fairytale. Sure there were probably a couple of pumpkins too and I suspect they all got preserved into kimchi but it surpasses any sweet ending one has ever heard of as far as ‘piteous-to-triumphant’ tales go—plus, what can beat real life?
“Life’s a peach” indeed, at least today for the wildly acclaimed Momofuku restaurant group based in East Village, New York and spanning twelve locations from NY to Toronto to Sydney. If names serve a purpose in foretelling success, Momofuku was perfectly well-named. It means ‘Lucky Peach’ in Japanese but who could believe that in the beginning, it was anything but. Even harder to fathom is the phenomenal rise and rise of what Momofuku was and is and shall be, given its shady past as a terribly uneventful ramen shop in 2003.
I’ll cut to the chase with the moral of the story: do not give the public what you think they want. Give them what YOU want and then wait or them to WANT it. I hope I got that down pat and summarised the tale of David Chang’s humble beginnings when he first embarked on Noodle Bar with as much clue as a sailor (the man does swear a whole lot) trying to start a fish and chips restaurant and tried to serve up what he thought was the ‘Japanese noodle bar mainstay that New Yorkers were drawn to and kind of expected to find’.
Nothing could be further than the painful reality and to try and picture Momofuku’s humble beginnings as the failure it once was or had been was thoroughly fascinating and entertaining. Actually, THAT part of the cookbook just had me biting my nails like it were a gripping thriller told in the restaurant setting and kept me up at 1 a.m. unable to put it down. Yup, a cookbook. It’s that good. Well no cookbook has ever accomplished an amazing feat like that in my lifetime of reading pleasures, so it’s a hell of a cookbook I must say. Did I just say ‘hell’? I may’ve just become subliminally conditioned after reading Momofuku the cookbook, which—if it had been an audio book, would come with plenty of ‘bleeps’ for the barrage of vulgarities peppered throughout the pages.
I think journalist Peter Meehan who drafted the manuscript of this brilliantly executed cookbook has done a superior job of crafting Momofuku’s “genesis, evolution and ascension”(pg. 10), weaving a riveting narrative that has readers panting. What could’ve been just another typical catastrophic eatery failure and a statistic in such a ruthlessly demanding and unforgiving industry turned the tables on its master.
A too-young Korean American chef David Chang with his devil-may-care attitude and prestigious accolades and culinary awards has defied common logic and his story seems implausible at times but the world watches, enchanted. Make that enthralled, mesmerised and hankering to eat at any one of Momofuku’s conceptual restaurants. He has had any self-respecting gourmand pencil in at least one of his ingenious twelve eateries under their Bucket List, just to see what the fuss is about.
“Momofuku is the anti-restaurant.” – Peter Meehan, Introduction, p.8 “Momofuku is a kinetic, hype-generating buzz magnet the likes of which has rarely, if ever, been seen.” (p.8)
I realise this is a cookbook/recipe review and at some point I should mention the food?
And the man behind the Momofuku legend, this David Chang, the self-declared mad-tempered, profanity-spewing, angsty fried chicken lover with his endless Oscars of the culinary world has been generous to provide sneak peeks into the eclectic magic of his kitchen. You will find, with great pleasure, coveted recipe secrets of his basic asian staples and sauces with strong Korean-Japanese influences revealed:ramen broth, Momofuku ramen, kimchi stew, pork buns, fried chicken, bo ssäm, ko kimchi consommé and xo sauce amongst other virtuosic creations like ‘shaved foie gras’ lychee and pine nut brittle. There is also a sneak glimpse into his famous Momofuku dessert kingdom named ‘Milkbar’ (our next dessert book review) with recipes to intrigue like ‘Miso Butterscotch’ ‘fried apple pie’ and Milkbar’s signature ‘cereal milk custard’.
Be forewarned—David Chang will make you want to turn every vegetable you ever see into kimchi. I catch myself wanting to ‘kimchi-fy’ and preserve my bowl of mandarins(in season now in Australia) and also my wombok. Maybe just not together. You’ll also want to suddenly launch into Momofuku territory which is to concoct a ‘soft-cooked hen egg with caviar, onions and potato’ served with ‘fingerling potato chips’ then move into mains like ‘marinated skirt steak ssäm’ which is essentially a skirt steak accompanied by a lettuce wrap of spicy red kimchi puree and ginger spring onion sauce.
I’m especially curious about making his renowned ssäm sauce (added to Momofuku’s fried chicken, steamed buns and lettuce wraps) which I will have to try to replicate in my own kitchen. Momofuku has now bottled their identity into this much-hyped-about ssämjang sauce (spicy fermented bean paste) which retails in their restaurants, reputable delis and establishments.
In the cookbook, the recipe calls it a mix of denjang (Korea’s funkier version of Japanese miso) and kochujang, a spicy chilli paste. David Chang recently launched his new venture into pantry grocery territory using Instagram to market his magic sauce as one that shall ‘improve everything from pizza, burgers, fries, nuggets, salads, quinoa (!), kale (!), and makes even sriracha sauce better’.
All in all, it has been a good ride getting acquainted with the media darling that Momofuku is—getting a ring seat as a bystander looking in and savouring the delicious stories from the horse’s mouth, being inspired by the old adage that ‘anything is possible’ and finding a strange desire in yourself to whip up ‘Maine Jonah Crab Claws with Yuzu Mayonnaise’ at 2 am in the morning after putting the hardcover book down.
I don’t know what it was—maybe this cookbook really struck a nerve as I’ve been there, done that and have given a stab at chefdom and the mafia business of what a restaurant is and was blessed to have gone where few dare to tread…and in the end I know my heart will always have a soft spot for underdog chefs who in the beginning, like David Chang, had no clue what the hell they were doing opening a restaurant to start with. It’s beautiful to hear that at least some of us do find ourselves living happily after.
You may also like to see my ‘Cook the Book’ challenge as I take on Momofuku’s XO Sauce from pg. 154 of the cookbook.
MOMOFUKU (hardcover), David Chang & Peter Meehan, Absolute Press, United Kingdom, 2010, 295 pages.
This is not a paid or sponsored review; neither has a copy of ‘Momofuku’ been received by the reviewer as a sponsored gift or payment for this review.
If you wish to contact Kat Ngoi for book reviews, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org